"By Sandy Smith | July 31, 2015
CicLAvia participants cross the Fourth Street Bridge, with a view of downtown Los Angeles in the background. (Photo by Downtowngal)
Over the last 30 to 40 years, a tectonic shift has occurred in the way Americans think about urban transportation networks, especially the streets and roads that are their backbone. After decades of designing streets as low-grade highways designed to move cars as quickly as practicable, officials in a growing list of cities across the U.S. have changed course and implemented policies and design standards that emphasize the movement of people, not just cars. Bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, ciclovias and more have proven popular where implemented, delivered significant public benefits, and generated momentum for further changes that reclaim city streets for everyone’s use.
Tackling the “Wicked Problem” of Urban Street Planning
Miami Designers Counter Florida DOT With Their Own Plan for Little Havana Corridor
Calgary Bike Advocates: Don’t Call Our City the Houston of Canada
The Lovely Multi-Use Mishmash of Vietnamese City Streets
These officials couldn’t have done what they did without support from above — the citizens to whom they report and who advocate for change — and below — the city transportation officials charged with developing the policies and strategies for their implementation and the public works bureaucracies whose job it is to do the implementing.
A report released this week by TransitCenter, a research and advocacy organization devoted to promoting urban vitality through better transit and transportation options, documents the role all three groups play in producing innovative urban mobility systems.
“A People’s History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovations” looks at how the virtuous cycle of innovation works by examining the role all of the actors played in six cities: Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, New York, Pittsburgh and Portland.
The process begins with civic organizations that advocate for change and mobilize public support for policies. While planning groups like New York’s Regional Plan Association and business leadership groups like Charlotte’s Center City Partners can serve as “think tanks” that generate new ideas and turn them into plans that can be acted upon, the grassroots advocacy groups are fundamental. According to the report, groups like the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance of Oregon play the key role of raising public awareness of the issues and generating support for change. When groups with particular interests band together around larger goals, they become even more effective.
These groups create the space for city halls to rethink how their cities approach transportation and promote new policy directions. By offering candidates energized blocs of voters, the advocates give politicians an opportunity to incorporate innovative thinking on urban mobility into their larger policy agendas. Once in office, mayors or city councilors can then claim a mandate to develop programs based on the ideas of the advocates.
Here mayoral appointments to leadership positions play a crucial role. Putting top transportation officials in place who understand the goals of the plans and programs means that those goals get translated into workable policies.
And that’s where the bureaucrats below the commissioners come in. Whether they’re staffers who have come from the advocacy community or career civil servants, they share a knowledge and commitment. An advocate may bring an understanding of community politics to the task in order to help projects overcome objections, or they may know the ins and outs of bureaucratic procedure and thus can develop effective rules that others will follow after they’re gone. In this last realm, the development of new street design standards in places like New York form not only the basis for lasting change at the local level but also a platform that other cities can adopt.
All three of these elements, the report concludes, are essential to producing durable reform. The report notes how the lack of all three elements kept Pittsburgh from fully realizing the reform goals of Mayor Tom Murphy or taking maximum advantage of a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation grant program that encouraged regional cooperation on land use and transportation planning.
However, even cities like Pittsburgh have benefited and will continue to benefit from the new approaches to urban transportation put in place elsewhere. Organizations like the National Association of City Transportation Officials are producing manuals and design standards that upend the autos-above-all-else approaches that continue to dominate thinking at both the state and federal levels.
In another 30 years or so, city residents may come to take for granted the pedestrian- and bike-friendly practices and designs now taking hold in today’s cities. If so, they will have this triad of activists, elected leaders and bureaucrats to thank."
"Five Valley creators are contributing to a public art exhibit that is helping to restore some hope to the future of print media.
“The Alphabet Project” by New Orleans artist Anna Schuleit Haber takes a new spin on public art, using Fitchburg’s daily newspaper, the Sentinel & Enterprise, as its medium. For 26 days — taking off Sundays — the seven-day paper’s front page is displaying a letter of the alphabet, with stories centered on words that start with that letter. On Thursday, they run the letter “P.”
“This project really got me excited because people thought we were all done with print, that we’ve exhausted every possibility for print,” said Sentinel & Enterprise Editor Charles St. Amand. “Thousands pick up the paper every day. We still need to be engaging them, and this is a whole different way to engage the audience.”
He said that if major news were to break, the project would be suspended, but otherwise, what would normally be on Page 1 has moved to Page 3, with Page 2 reserved for an explanation of the project.
Among those who contributed designs of letters are Northampton residents Dan Keleher (C) and Joe Riedel (J), South Deerfield resident Pam Glaven (Q), and Barry Moser (P) of Hatfield. Amherst resident and artist Kathryn Fanelli contributed an essay, running this week, on growing up in Fitchburg as part of a family that owned and operated a traveling carnival.
Haber’s project was made possible in part by a $75,000 grant through the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town program to the Fitchburg Art Museum, the city of Fitchburg and Fitchburg State University, according to Fitchburg Art Museum director Nick Capasso. He said this is the third of three projects provided for by the grant, the first being a sculpture called “The Immigrant” by Nora Valdez, and the second being an outdoor mural by Caleb Neelon.
“This was just so completely out of the box,” Capasso said. “It was a completely different way to think about creating art in a public space.”
Haber rounded up the artists, designers and other creators behind the letters, who hail from seven countries on four continents, St. Amand said. All of the contributors of letters are volunteering their work, he said.
Keleher, owner of Wild Carrot Letterpress in Hadley, said he chose the letter C partly because the name of his company has the word “carrot” in it, but mostly because of the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a “compositor” in relation to printing, which reads, “One whose business is to set up type to print from; a type-setter.”
“I really like that definition,” he said. “It goes right back to the earliest days of printing for movable type.”
He photocopied the word and the definition along with the names of Fitchburg-area companies from the 19th and 20th centuries that start with the letter C and pasted them together to create his design.
Riedel, owner of Pintail Press in Hadley, said he wanted to create something that would pay homage to the city of Fitchburg, so he created a collage using issues of the Sentinel & Enterprise from the summer of 1945 in the shape of the letter “J.”
He said no one was given any guidelines as to what their letter needed to look like.
“If you look at them all next to each other, they’re all so different,” he said. “It’s just so cool to see everybody’s idea of how they wanted to make that letter.”
He noted that by using the front page of a newspaper, the project is reaching people who normally might not see art on a daily basis.
“It’s such a cool project,” he said. “I’m honored to have been a part of it.”
Glaven, a visual artist and a partner at Impress, a graphic design studio in Northampton, noted that she cannot say much about her letter, because it does not run until Friday.
“I will say, I took a break from the computer,” and returned to her practice in the fine arts, she said.
Haber is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who has worked as a full-time visual artist for 17 years. Among her past projects is a sound installation at the Northampton State Hospital in 2000.
She said she was surprised to learn that Fitchburg still has a daily newspaper, and that it fits with her ongoing interest in storytelling through her art.
“The sheer urgency of the news every morning is something that normally eludes the arts, which are slower and more reflective. Combining these two, the daily city news and the arts, is a joy,” she wrote in an email.
Capasso said he believes “The Alphabet Project” has broad appeal because it is innovative in both art and in journalism, beginning a new conversation about what a newspaper can be.
“It’s a win-win for the museum and the newspaper: We can be industry leaders in public art, and the Sentinel can be an industry leader in journalism,” he said. “It’s also a project that neither of us could do by ourselves.”
Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org."
"München bleibt ohne Stolpersteine
1.200 Städte erinnern mit Stolpersteinen an die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus. In München hat sich der Stadtrat gegen das Erinnerungskonzept entschieden.
29. Juli 2015 12:55 Uhr 164 Kommentare
Stolpersteine mit den Namen von deportierten Juden
Stolpersteine mit den Namen von deportierten Juden | © dpa
München wird auch in Zukunft keine sogenannten Stolpersteine zur Erinnerung an von Nationalsozialisten ermordete Menschen verlegen. Der Stadtrat stimmte gegen die Zulassung der mit kleinen Messingplatten bedeckten quadratischen Betonsteine auf öffentlichen Straßen und Plätzen. Stattdessen sollen Stelen und Gedenktafeln an Hauswänden sowie ein zentrales Namensdenkmal auf die Schicksale der Ermordeten aufmerksam machen.
In München, von wo aus der Nationalsozialismus sich in Deutschland ausbreitete, ist die Verlegung der populären Mahnmale seit 20 Jahren umstritten. Von manchen Nachkommen der Opfer werden die Stolpersteine als unwürdige Form des Gedenkens empfunden, da die Opfer ihrer Ansicht nach mit Füßen getreten und erniedrigt werden. Charlotte Knobloch etwa, Präsidentin der Israelitischen Kultusgemeinde in München, spricht sich seit Jahren gegen die Steine aus – weil sie nicht fassen kann, "dass dort die Namen von Holocaustopfern zu Füßen der Menschen angebracht werden".
Die Befürworter der Steine hingegen verweisen auf den Aufmerksamkeitseffekt, den die Steine erzielen. Auch könne jedes Mahnmal, ob senkrecht oder waagerecht errichtet, geschändet werden, schrieb der stellvertretende Vorsitzende des Zentralrats der Juden in Deutschland, Salomon Korn, zum Münchener Stolperstein-Streit in der ZEIT. Aus der Tatsache, dass es für die Schändung aufrecht stehender Mahnmale keine so eingängige Sprachmetapher wie "mit Füßen treten" gäbe, erwachse kein bewertbarer Unterschied der Schwere des Schändungsaktes.
Von den Steinen, die vor den ehemaligen Wohnhäusern der Ermordeten in den Gehweg eingelassen werden, wurden inzwischen 50.000 in 1.200 Städten in 18 Ländern verlegt.
Warum die Stolpersteine in München Gegner und Befürworter haben, zeigt das Video von Anfang dieses Jahres.
Zehntausende Stolpersteine erinnern in vielen Städten an von den Nationalsozialisten ermordete Menschen. In München jedoch sind sie auf öffentlichem Grund verboten. Die Israelitische Kultusgemeinde findet ein solches Gedenken unwürdig. Video kommentieren
"There are a number of ways to stock a bar: you can go out and buy one of everything (not really recommended), you can go out and buy what you need for your one or two favorite cocktails (better), or you can wait and hope that a well stocked bar magically appears in your living room (and actually end up just drinking whatever is left over from your housewarming party six months ago). If you've tended toward the last method, your bar might be looking a little bleak. But if you've got just one bottle, you can make drinks.
Today, we'll focus on the cocktails you can make with a bottle of gin. You don't need liqueurs, vermouth, or any other spirits. The rest of the ingredients can be gathered at your local grocery store or farmers' market—this list should be handy as warm-weather produce starts appearing again, but there's plenty to get you started even if you can still see snow out your window"
"Author: Betsy Parks Issue: Apr/May 2011
For my first ever taste of ice cider, I picked up a bottle at the local wine shop during a typical all-day New England snowstorm on my way home from work. I was intrigued. I like icewine, and I like hard cider — so ice cider seemed like the best of both worlds. The label on the bottle instructed me to “serve well chilled,” so, like a typical Vermonter, I slid the tall, slim 375-mL bottle up to its neck in a snow bank outside my front door on my way into the house and let it cool down outside as I headed inside to make dinner.
After dinner, my roommate and I rescued the bottle from the blizzard, uncorked it and poured two small tastes. “It looks a lot lighter than I thought,” she remarked at the bright amber-gold color. “Smells like a cold apple orchard,” I responded. We took a sip. Tart but sweet, the chilly dessert wine burst with a complex apple cider flavor that permeated my mouth and lingered on my palate. “Yum,” my roommate said with a smile. “Yum, indeed,” I answered back with a few nods. And with that first sip, I had to know more about ice cider.
Originally from Québec, where it is known as cidre de glace, ice cider is made from sweet juice extracted from frozen cider, just as icewine is made from the juice from frozen winegrapes. Christian Barthomeuf, the owner of Clos Saragnat and the cidermaker at Domaine Pinnacle, both located in Frelighsburg, Québec, is credited with making the first ice cider in the early 1990s.
Unlike hard cider, which is simply fermented fresh-pressed apple cider, ice cider is fermented from the sugary solution of the fresh-pressed apple juice that has been separated from the water in the juice by freezing it. This can be done either naturally by leaving the fruit on the trees to freeze and then pressing the juice from the frozen fruit, or by freezing juice and separating the concentrate from the ice (known as cryoextraction).
The concentrate, because of its sugar content, has a higher freezing point than water. When the cider is frozen, the concentrated juice is separated from the ice crystals, inoculated with wine yeast and fermented. (Icewine-style wine can also be made by freezing fresh juice, but only on the amateur scale as commercial icewine is strictly regulated. For more information about making your own icewine at home, see “California Icewine” in the October-November 2009 issue of WineMaker.)
To figure out the process for making ice cider on a home winemaking scale, I contacted Eleanor Leger, co-owner and cider maker at Eden Ice Cider Company in West Charlestown, Vermont for some advice. My first question was, is making ice cider on a small scale possible? Of course! It turns out, Eden’s first ice cider trials were made using 5.0-gallon (19-L) polyethylene terephthalate (PET) carboys, which they filled with cider, left out in the Vermont winter to freeze, and flipped upside down to extract the concentrate. “I think I can handle this,” I thought.
Start with Cider"
Home » Blogs » The Muqata »
Condemning the Jewish Extremists
Everyone is angry at the ongoing Arab terrorism, but what does murdering a baby have to do with protecting Jewish lives or furthering Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel?
Published: July 31st, 2015
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Inside of the home burned in the Prce Tag attack in the village of Duma.
Inside of the home burned in the Prce Tag attack in the village of Duma.
Photo Credit: Screenshot
At the Muqata, we have been struggling to find the strongest words possible to condemn what is clearly nothing less than a terror attack in the village of Duma, which left an Arab baby dead and the family with severe burn injuries.
Price Tag attacks were supposedly initiated to both scare the Arabs from the nearby villages to stop attacking and murdering Jews, as well as to scare the army/police/government into not harassing settlers, otherwise they’d rile up the Arabs so much, the IDF would find their hands full.
Already years ago, it was clear that neither strategy worked.
It also opened up the door for a series of false claims of vandalism attacks to be blamed on Jews.
So despite the attacks not doing anything — except blackening the name of all Jews, the price tag vandalism continued.
There have been a series of attacks by Jewish extremists lately. The attack on the gay parade yesterday, the arson at the church on the Kinneret, and now this.
“Thou shall not murder” is one of the ten commandments. Have they forgotten that, or not learned it in the first place?
Yes they’re angry at the ongoing Arab terrorism, everyone is, but what does murdering a baby have to do with protecting Jewish lives or furthering Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel?"
Boston Heritage of a City
April 29, 2013
Did Samuel Adams Operate a Brewery?
Samuel Adams is one of the most well-known and influential residents in Boston’s history. He was born here in 1722 and lived in the Boston area his whole life dying in Cambridge at the age of 81, in 1803. Adams was one of the founding fathers of the United States having signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Today Samuel Adams’ name is most closely associated with a brand of beer made by the Boston Brewing Company that is named in his honor, but did Samuel Adams have anything to do with this company and brewing beers or was it just named after him? Well it turns out that both of these things are true.
The Samuel Adams brand of beer was not created until 1984 by James Koch, more than 180 years after Samuel Adam’s death, so clearly he had nothing to do with the Boston Brewing company. Samuel Adams, however, did come from a family of brewers and maltsters. When Adams was 21 years old, like a lot of people at that age, he had to decide what he wanted to do with his life. He debated back and forth in his head between becoming a businessman and practicing law as a lawyer. Eventually he decided that he wanted to go into the business world. Adams’ father operated a fairly successful malt house and was able to loan him 1,000 pounds, which was a fairly large amount of money at the time, to go into business for himself after a failed attempt by Samuel to work at Thomas Cushing’s Counting House. Adams quickly proved that the business world was no place for him by losing the entire loan his father gave to him with nothing to show for it. After losing the money, Samuel’s father made him a partner at the family’s malt house which was located right next to the Adams’ home on Purchase Street. The Adams malt house made enough profits, under Samuel’s father, to buy the family a house with an orchard, a garden, and even a few servants to help out. The ales and beers that the Adams family helped to make were all sold locally due to the poor refrigeration and pasteurization technology at the time that made it impossible to ship it very far without the beers and ales going bad. There was a history of maltsters in the Adams family going back multiple generations. Samuel continued to run the malt house after his father’s death and even earned himself the nickname Sammy the maltster by his political foes. This nickname was not given to him in a positive manner and was supposed to be a shot at Samuel and his family.
To get back to the main question of whether or not Samuel Adams was a brewer, I feel it is a bit of a leap to call him that. The title of maltster seems much more appropriate to me. According to a 1986 article in Boston Magazine Samuel Adams was not a brewer. The founding father was “a maltster, a soaker and drier of barley, and not a very eager or adept one at that. "
"Following reports that Lebanese terrorist Samir Al-Quntar has been killed in alleged Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon and Syria, MEMRI has compiled a number of his statements, from his interviews and addresses.
In 1979, Samir Al-Quntar participated in a terror attack in the Israeli city of Nahariya, kidnapping a four-year-old girl and her father from their home and killing them on a nearby beach. He was arrested and sentenced to five life sentences plus 47 years for his role in the attack; on July 16, 2008, he was released along with four other prisoners as part of an Israel-Hizbullah deal, in return for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbullah two years earlier.
After his release, Al-Quntar was given a hero's welcome in Lebanon, and was decorated by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Al-Jazeera TV reported his release as news and held an on-air birthday party for him, complete with cake, fireworks, and orchestra.
Following are excerpts from statements made by Al-Quntar in interviews and addresses following his release in 2008."
Museums are becoming more playful … in how they ask us for money
July 30, 2015 9.46am EDT
Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University
Jenny Kidd receives funding from the AHRC and ESRC.
Cardiff University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.
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Neil Armstrong’s suit has attracted over $500,000 from crowdfunding. NASA/HO
On the 46th Anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum launched their phenomenally successful Reboot The Suit crowdfunding campaign, the Smithsonian’s first attempt at garnering micro-payments through the site.
They have now reached their goal of $500,000 in supporting pledges, meaning that the conservation, digitization and display of the original spacesuit worn by Armstrong for the moon landing in 1969 can now begin. I found myself captivated by the Twitter frenzy generated by the campaign and (not for the first time) lured into making a pledge by the promise of stickers and kudos.
The Smithsonian is not the first museum to turn to crowdfunding as a mechanism to secure financial investment and to foster relationships that are the other truly valuable legacy of such campaigns. The UK Museums Association has tipped crowdfunding as the big growth area for this year, especially for smaller organisations that might otherwise struggle to get new initiatives off the ground.
Reboot the Suit. Kickstarter
Click to enlarge
There are now plenty of success stories. Llandudno Museum raised more than its goal of £3,000 in 2014 in order to bring home Blodwen, a skeleton from the Neolithic period. The People’s History Museum recently successfully crowdfunded Join The Radicals, their #GetMary campaign to sponsor a radical hero – in this case Mary Wollstonecraft – and put her name on the wall of the museum. In these instances, and most of those on the Art Fund’s Art Happens crowdfunding website, the total goal is far more modest than that of Reboot The Suit. There have been less positive experiences also; earlier this year the campaign to raise funds to open an Ian Curtis Museum in Macclesfield only raised 1% of its overall goal of £150,000.
So crowdfunding is an unpredictable endeavour. Research shows that most projects either exceed their goal amounts by narrow margins, or else fail catastrophically. There are of course some stories of significant overfunding too, and Reboot The Suit looks on course to enter that category.
Arts funding is notoriously difficult to come by, especially in an age of austerity. Museums are being encouraged to be more resilient, more entrepreneurial, and to explore new forms of patronage. They are also becoming more playful. They speak the language of social media and are not afraid to address their supporters – their fans – as equals. “You’re the Best” the Smithsonian tells me on committing my pledge. In their next update; “We’re all dancing the moon walk because of you!” Their genuine excitement at the enthusiasm generated by the campaign is palpable. We might note that museums are well placed to succeed with crowdfunding campaigns because they have access to a pre-existing and often significant following of friends (and, crucially, friends of friends) on social networks.
Not the most reliable source of income. msk13, CC BY
There are many reasons museums want to embrace this funding mechanism beyond the obvious ability to fund a particular initiative; to demonstrate demand for a project (or to fail quickly and quietly), to garner support and wider publicity, to reach new audiences and exploit their social capital and to project themselves as connected and relevant in today’s changed cultural landscape. But this activity raises questions also; should institutions that receive state funding be appealing to the public for additional support? Might crowdfunding become seen as a valid substitute for state support? Is it exploitative of those who pledge? These are ethical questions, and are not easy to answer.
In the UK there is an ongoing debate about how we should articulate the value of culture. As individuals and communities our perceptions of culture and the arts are not static. Assessing their worth, vitality and importance begins in the relationships we have with cultural institutions and the experiences they foster.
However, how the value of a cultural encounter manifests and mutates in the online environment is an underexplored question. In crowdfunding campaigns those experiences can be inventive, educative and rewarding; the value is in participating in something simultaneously individual and collective. Why is it that I get such a buzz from being a backer on Reboot The Suit even when I may never be able to visit the final exhibit that will be the outcome of the project? Why is it that I don’t feel exploited but privileged? At what point will my enthusiasm for these platforms, and my resources, prove finite?
Crowdfunding campaigns, for all of their unpredictability, are incredibly seductive. Museums are dynamic and shifting institutions, and they have stories to tell that we want to be a part of."
"Ever since my book Why People Believe Weird Things was published in 1997 I have been asked about the weirdest things people believe that I’ve come across in my quarter century of professional skepticism. I thought it would be fun and instructive to compile a Top Ten list. Naturally the criteria of what constitutes “weird” is necessarily subjective, but generally speaking I am talking about things that most experts do not believe are true but nevertheless have gained a toehold in our collective cultural consciousness. I also consider the wider impact of the claims on society. The belief that the Earth is flat, or hollow, is certainly weird, but it isn’t something that people give much thought to. By contrast, these ten seem to have a gravitational pull on people’s beliefs.
Top Ten Weirdest Things People Believe
#10. Ancient Aliens
The belief that aliens have been visiting Earth for millennia gained a mass following in 1968 with the publication of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, which became an international bestseller. Publishers like such cash cows, and the tens of millions of dollars in sales generated numerous sequels, including Gods from Outer Space, The Gods Were Astronauts and, just in time for the December 21, 2012 doomsday palooza, Twilight of the Gods: The Mayan Calendar and the Return of the Extraterrestrials. Earthlings still await their arrival.
ancient aliens guyThe latest channel for the belief that ancient peoples were incapable of accomplishing such inconceivable feats as piling cut stones on top of one another into a pyramid shape is the History Channel, or more precisely H2, which lacks the oxygen of the original. Its series Ancient Aliens series stars the starry-eyed bouffant capped Giorgio Tsoukalos, whose most common refrain is best captured in a poster of his goofy expression and the words “I’m not saying it’s aliens…but it’s aliens.”
The reason this one makes the top ten list is because of its ubiquity (77% of Americans believe there are signs that aliens have visited the earth at some time in the past) and its instructiveness of the logical fallacy called argumentum ad ignorantiam, or appeal to ignorance. The illogical reasoning goes like this: if there is no satisfactory terrestrial explanation for the Egyptian pyramids and many other features of ancient landscapes—such as the Nazca lines of Peru and the statues of Easter Island—then the extraterrestrial theory that they were built by aliens must be true.
In point of fact archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have perfectly terrestrial explanations for all the so-called unsolved mysteries of the past, such that extra-terrestrial explanations are unnecessary. Before we say something is otherworldly we should first consider its worldly explanations.
Interestingly, in researching this subject for my July 2013 column in Scientific American, I discovered that in subsequent printings of Chariots of the Gods? the question mark was dropped and this disqualifier was added on the copyright page: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.” QED.
#9. UFOs are Visiting Earth Today
For over half a century reports have been coming in about Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) darting about our skies and landing in our crop fields, mutilating cows, probing humans, and even impregnating women with alien-human hybrids. Since “UFO” has become something of a joke, a new phrase was recently introduced: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), proffered by the investigative journalist Leslie Kean in a 2010 book entitled UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record. Kean asks readers to consider “with an open and truly skeptical mind” that such sightings represent “a solid, physical phenomenon that appears to be under intelligent control and is capable of speeds, maneuverability, and luminosity beyond current known technology,” that the “U.S. government routinely ignores UFOs and, when pressed, issues false explanations,” and that the “hypothesis that UFOs are of extraterrestrial or interdimensional origin is a rational one and must be taken into account, given the data we have.”
ufo over manhattan
© Philcold | Dreamstime.com – Ufo Over Manhattan Photo
How much data do we have and can it help us distinguish between UAPs and what I call Completely Ridiculous Alien Piffle (CRAP) such as crop circles and cattle mutilations, alien abductions and anal probes, and genetic experiments and human-alien hybrids? According to Kean, “roughly 90 to 95% of UFO sightings can be explained” as “weather balloons, flares, sky lanterns, planes flying in formation, secret military aircraft, birds reflecting the sun, planes reflecting the sun, blimps, helicopters, planes in formation, the planets Venus or Mars, meteors or meteorites, space junk, satellites, swamp gas, spinning eddies, sundogs, ball lightning, ice crystals, reflected light off clouds, lights on the ground or lights reflected on a cockpit window” and more. So the entire extraterrestrial hypothesis is based on the residue of data left over after the above list has been exhausted. What’s left? Not much.
In all fields of science there is a residue of anomalies unexplained by the dominant theory. That does not mean that the prevailing theory is wrong or that alternative theories are right. It just means that more work needs to be done to bring those anomalies into the accepted paradigm. In the meantime, it is okay to live with the uncertainty that not everything has an explanation. And once again, before we say something is extra-terrestrial let’s first make sure that it is not terrestrial.
#8. Evolution Denial (Creationism)
The argumentum ad ignorantiam employed by alien and UFO proponents is actually an old one used by evolution deniers—better known as creationists, or Intelligent Design theorists—who make what are called “God of the gaps” arguments: wherever there is a gap in scientific knowledge, that is evidence of divine design. The problem with all such arguments from ignorance—or gaps—is what happens to your theory when the gaps are filled? In science, for a new theory to be accepted, it is not enough to only identify the gaps in the prevailing theory (negative evidence). Proponents must provide positive evidence in favor of their new theory.
This is what creationists have failed to do ever since Darwin published his theory in 1859. Denying that evolution happened, denying that natural selection suffices as a mechanism of evolutionary change, denying macro-evolution (while accepting micro-evolution), denying transitional fossils, denying embryology, comparative anatomy, and comparative physiology, denying biogeography, and denying the genetic similarity of all living beings adds up to a lot of denial in order to rescue religious beliefs from the onslaught of convergent evidence from so many lines of inquiry.
This one also makes the list because of its popularity (polls consistently show that 40-45% of Americans believe in young earth creationism, another 40-45% believe that God guides evolution, while the rest take a strictly materialist/non-supernatural view of evolution) and it’s influence on science education as religious groups continue to lobby school boards, curriculum boards, textbook publishers, politicians, and teachers to “teach the controversy” and to give “equal time” to creationism in its many forms. Yet their curriculum programs fail to offer anything more than gussied up versions of “God did it” explanations, without even bothering to explain how God did it. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe no one did it.
#7. Holocaust Denial
The doppelganger of evolution denial, Holocaust revisionists (as they call themselves) deny the Shoah with very similar tactics as creationists (I explore this in depth in my book Why People Believe Weird Things):
A. Holocaust deniers find errors in the scholarship of historians and then imply that therefore their conclusions are wrong, as if historians never make mistakes. Evolution deniers (a more appropriate title than creationists) find errors in science and imply that all of science is wrong, as if scientists never make mistakes.
B. Holocaust deniers are fond of quoting, usually out of context, leading Nazis, Jews, and Holocaust scholars to make it sound like they are supporting Holocaust deniers’ claims. Evolution deniers are fond of quoting leading scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and Ernst Mayr out of context and implying that they are cagily denying the reality of evolution.
C. Holocaust deniers contend that genuine and honest debate between Holocaust scholars means they themselves doubt the Holocaust or cannot get their stories straight. Evolution deniers argue that genuine and honest debate between scientists means even they doubt evolution or cannot get their science straight. The irony of this analogy is that the Holocaust deniers can at least be partially right (the best estimate of the number of Jews killed at Auschwitz, for example, has changed), whereas the evolution deniers cannot even be partially right—once you allow divine intervention into the scientific process, all assumptions about natural law go out the window, and with them science.
I wrote an entire book on this topic, Denying History so I won’t go into the details of their many arguments and my many refutations here, but suffice it to say that Holocaust denial makes the list because of the deep and profound political ramifications, particularly in the Middle East where there are still people who, while denying Hitler attempted to eradicate European Jewry, nevertheless believe he should have and that they would still like to. Thus is it, pace George Santayana, if we do not remember this past properly we may be condemned to repeat it.
6. Morphic Resonance and ESP
According to Rupert Sheldrake, a Cambridge University trained scientist and scion of paranormal researchers dating back the late 19th century, the universe is infused with what he calls morphic resonance: similar forms (morphs) resonate and exchange information through a universal life force. This, he says, is “the basis of memory in nature….the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species.” As Rupert explained in a 1999 Salon.com interview: “Descartes believed the only kind of mind was the conscious mind. Then Freud reinvented the unconscious. Then Jung said it’s not just a personal unconscious but a collective unconscious. Morphic resonance shows us that our very souls are connected with those of others and bound up with the world around us.”
© Rik57 | Dreamstime.com – Brains Connected By Lightning Bolts Photo
As well, Sheldrake writes in his 1981 book A New Science of Life that “As time goes on, each type of organism forms a special kind of cumulative collective memory. The regularities of nature are therefore habitual. Things are as they are because they were as they were.” Morphic resonance, Sheldrake continues, is “the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species,” and it explains phantom limbs, homing pigeons, how dogs know when their owners are coming home, and such psychic phenomena as how people know when someone is staring at them. “Vision may involve a two-way process, an inward movement of light and an outward projection of mental images.” This is also why it is so much easier to do the New York Times crossword puzzle later in the day—because people earlier in the day have already solved it and that knowledge resonated into the cosmos. You’ve noticed that right? No? Me neither.
#5. JFK Conspiracy Theories
Kevin Costner had it right the first time when, in his 1988 film Bull Durham, he proclaimed to Susan Sarandon’s character “I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone” (along with his other beliefs, such as “high fiber, good scotch, the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve,” and memorably, “I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days“). As opposed to Costner’s 1991 film JFK, in which he unforgettably repeated “back and to the left” over and over to drive home the point that there were multiple shooters—three teams at least—nestled in Dealey Plaza and positioned in the Dal-Tex building, on the grassy knoll, behind the picket fence, on the highway overpass…the possibilities are endless with enough imagination.
jfk in car
This one makes the list because for the past half century it has emerged as the mother of all conspiracy theories (possibly topped only by the next one on my list) and has considerable public support. A 2009 CBS News poll, for example, found that 60-80% of Americans believe that President Kennedy was the victim of an assassination conspiracy.
Conspiracy popularity notwithstanding, they are all wrong. Oswald acted alone. If Gerald Posner’s devastating take-down book Case Closed doesn’t do it for you (it did for me), Vincent Bugliosi’s brobdingnagian Reclaiming History at 1,648 pages (or the “short” version Four Days in November at only 688 pages) demolishes every single claim for conspiracy ever made. Consider just a few of the many facts that are not in the conspiracy believers’ favor:
Conspiracy theorists make a big deal about the fact that Oswald happened to get a job at a building that was on JFK’s parade route, assuming that he was planted there by the conspirators. In point of fact, however, Gerald Posner tracked down the timeline for when the White House decided Kennedy was even going to Dallas, which was well after Oswald was hired. It was pure coincidence.
Oswald’s Carcano bolt-action rifle—with his fingerprints on it—was found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building, where he was employed, in a sniper’s nest he built out of boxes that also had his fingerprints on them.
Three bullet casings there match what 81% of eyewitnesses in Dealey Plaza reported hearing—three shots.
Tests with this rifle found that three shots are possible in the amount of time Oswald had to shoot.
The Carcano was the same rifle Oswald purchased by mail order in March 1963.
Co-workers saw Oswald on the sixth floor of the Book Depository building shortly before JFK’s motorcade arrived, and saw him exit soon after the assassination.
Oswald went home and picked up his pistol and left again, shortly after which he was stopped by Dallas Patrolman J.D. Tippet, whom Oswald shot dead with four bullets, all witnessed by numerous observers. He then fled the scene and ducked into a nearby theater without paying. The police were summoned and Oswald was confronted. He pulled out his revolver and attempted to shoot the first officer but the gun failed and he was arrested, saying, “Well, it is all over now.”
And so it is. It is all over for JFK conspiracy theories. Oswald acted alone. Period.
#4. 9/11 Conspiracy Theories
Was 9/11 an “inside job”? That is, did the Bush administration orchestrate the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001? No.
But a lot of people think it is possible, or at the very least that President Bush and his operatives knew about the pending attacks and allowed them to happen in order to galvanize the American public into going to war against Iraq to finish the job his father failed to complete, as well as to protect our oil interests and other Middle East relations. Just as I never imagined that Holocaust denial would wend its way into the mainstream press, I never imagined that 9/11 denial would get media legs. But now it has legs for days, and so at Skeptic magazine we published a full rebuttal of all the 9/11 truthers’ claims.
By Damon D’Amato from North Hollywood, California (world-trade-banner) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The belief that a handful of unexplained anomalies can undermine a well-established theory lies at the heart of all conspiratorial thinking, and is easily refuted by noting that beliefs and theories are not built on single facts alone, but on a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry. All of the “evidence” for a 9/11 conspiracy falls under the rubric of this fallacy. By contrast, the evidence of the real conspiracy by Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda is overwhelming. For example:
The 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon by a radical Hezbollah faction.
The 1993 truck bomb attack on the World Trade Center.
The 1995 attempt to blow up 12 planes heading from the Philippines to the U.S.
The 1995 bombings of U.S. Embassy buildings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 12 Americans and 200 Kenyans and Tanzanians.
The 1996 attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. military personnel.
The 1999 attempt to attack Los Angeles International airport by Ahmed Ressam.
The 2000 suicide boat attack on the U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others.
The well-documented evidence that Osama Bin Laden is a major financier for and the leader of Al-Qaeda.
The 1996 fatwa by Bin Laden that officially declared a jihad against the United States.
The 1998 fatwa calling on his followers “to kill the Americans and their allies—civilian and military is an individual duty for any Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”
Given this evidence, and the fact that Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda officially claimed responsibility for the attacks of 9/11, we should take them at their word that they did it.
#3. The End of the World is Coming (Again)
You would think by now that people would have glommed on to the fact that since every single prediction about the end of the world has failed it would forestall any future attempts to predict the future’s demise. But no.
The years A.D. 1000 and 2000, of course, were too round and zeroey to pass up for apocalyptic doomsday scenarios, yet both came and went without incident. There was a European famine in 1005-1006 that was believed to fulfill one of Jesus’ admonitions to his disciples that this would be a sign of the end. But Jesus died at age 33 and, by some calendrical calculations, since he was born in the year 0, a millennia later would put the end at 1033, and this lead to a mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem by the faithful in preparation for the final judgment. There were “Peace of God” movements in the 990s and 1030s gathering in open fields to venerate holy relics. But the centuries rolled on.
© Inganielsen | Dreamstime.com - Apocalypse Photo
© Inganielsen | Dreamstime.com – Apocalypse Photo
In 1843 a New York farmer named William Miller recalculated Bishop Ussher’s famous computations for the beginning and end of the world (using the begats in the Old Testament), concluding that instead of the end coming in 1996 (2000 years after the birth of Christ in the oxymoronic year 4 B.C., so presumed because that was the year King Herod died, and he was alive when Jesus was born), it would happen sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When the latter date came and went without incident a “great disappointment” set in among his followers, but instead of abandoning their deranged prophet the sect recalculated the end for October 22, 1844, finding themselves twice disappointed. But instead of disbanding the group they instead doubled down on their belief (the very definition of cognitive dissonance) and employed several rationalizations that prophets use when their prophecies fail: (1) miscalculation of the date; (2) the date was a loose prediction, not a specific prophecy; (3) the date was a warning, not a prophecy; (4) God changed his mind; (5) predictions were just a test of members’ faith; (6) the prophecy was fulfilled physically, but not as expected; and (7) the prophecy was fulfilled—spiritually.
That group went on to become the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. But they’re lightweights compared to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose failed dates of doom include 1874, 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1975, 1984, and finally 1996, after which church leaders issued an edition of their magazine Awake! reminding readers of Jesus’s famous admonition that no man will know the “day or the hour” of his coming (even though Jesus also said “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”, referring to the signs of the end times).
Not just religious people are smitten with end times predictions. Secular versions have been proffered by hardline Marxists and communists (the end of capitalism), extreme environmentalists (the end of resources), liberal democrats (recall Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man), libertarians (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is an apocalyptic doomsday work), radical feminists (the end of patriarchy), and most recently the singularity (the end of biological intelligence and the beginning of artificial intelligence and human immortality), which is predicted to arrive sometime between 2030 and 2040. Don’t bet on it.
2. The Afterlife and the Soul
According to a 2009 Harris poll the following percentages of Americans believe in some form of the afterlife and the soul:
Soul survival 71%
life after death tunnel
This one makes the list because of its popularity and importance for most people’s purpose in life. Even the atheist Woody Allen said “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” I am often asked about the afterlife. My response: I’m for it! But the fact that I wish it were so does not make it so. And there is no scientific evidence that anything like a soul transcends the death of our physical bodies, or that there is life after life. As I wrote in my book The Believing Brain:
Either the soul survives death or it does not, and there is no scientific evidence that it does or ever will. Does science and skepticism extirpate all meaning in life? I think not; quite the opposite, in fact. If this is all there is, then how meaningful become our lives, our families, our friends, our communities—and how we treat others—when every day, every moment, every relationship, and every person counts; not as props in a temporary staging before an eternal tomorrow where ultimate purpose will be revealed to us, but as valued essences in the here-and-now where provisional purpose is created by us. Awareness of this reality elevates us all to a higher plane of humanity and humility, as we course through life together in this limited time and space—a momentary proscenium in the drama of the cosmos.
According to Oxford University Press’s World Christian Encyclopedia, 84% of the world’s population belongs to some form of organized religion, and a 2007 Pew Forum survey found that 92% of Americans believe in God “or a universal spirit”.
God or a universal spirit 92%
I realize that calling belief in God a “weird thing” will be offensive to some, but to be intellectually honest and consistent it should be correctly classified as a supernatural belief because by most traditional believers’ accounts God is conceived as all powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient), and all good (omnibenevolent); who created out of nothing the universe and everything in it; who is uncreated and eternal, a noncorporeal spirit who created, loves, and can grant eternal life to humans.
Cima da Conegliano, God the Father
I do not believe in any such god. Further, I believe that there is substantive evidence to show that God and religion are human and social constructions based on research from psychology, anthropology, history, comparative mythology, and sociology. I present this evidence in my book The Believing Brain. As well, the burden of proof is on believers to prove God’s existence—not on nonbelievers to disprove it—and to date theists have failed to prove God’s existence, at least by the high evidentiary standards of science and reason.
I also note a problem we face with the God question: certainty is not possible when we bump up against such ultimate questions as “What was there before time began?” or “If the Big Bang marked the beginning of all time, space, and matter, what triggered this first act of creation?” The fact that science has yet to answer these questions with certainty doesn’t faze scientists because theologians hit the same epistemological wall. You just have to push them one more step. For example, in my debates and dialogues with theologians the exchange usually goes something like this for the question of what triggered the Big Bang:
God did it.
Who created God?
God is He who needs not be created.
Why can’t the universe be “that which needs not be created?”
The universe is a thing or an event, whereas God is an agent or being, and things and events have to be created by something, but an agent or being does not.
Isn’t God a thing if He is part of the universe?
God is not a thing. God is an agent or being.
Don’t agents and beings have to be created as well? We’re an agent, a being—a human being. We agree that human beings need an explanation for our origin. So why does this causal reasoning not apply to God as agent and being?
God is outside of time, space, and matter, and thus needs no explanation.
If that is the case, then it is not possible for any of us to know if there is a God or not because, by definition, as finite beings operating exclusively within the natural world we can only know other natural beings and objects. It is not possible for a natural finite being to know a supernatural infinite being.
Thus it is that skepticism in this realm, as in so many others, is altogether appropriate. As the bumper sticker says:
Militant Agnostic: I Don’t Know and You Don’t Either.
© 2015 Michael Shermer, All rights reserved
Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches a course in Skepticism 101. His latest book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.